The Face of Genteel Poverty

Poverty has many faces. While there are some individuals and families who have been shielded from much of the devastation of this economy there are many who have seen their lives turned upside down financially.

Talking about this is difficult and I am not sure that I can do it well. It is horribly personal and hard to write about without being much more revealing than is really permissible in polite society. The writing of this may be a mishmash of matters political, Biblical and theological, and economic and educational. It is not intended, in so far as it is personal narration, to invite sympathy or judgement. Sympathy is not helpful and judgement is superfluous. Those found in this position have had plenty of time to examine the personal choices that may have contributed to their poverty. It is always easier to be wise in retrospect.

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This economy has been hard on many of us. It is laughable to watch the news and hear those shielded inside the beltway of Washington, DC still touting the line that a college degree will secure better jobs, higher income and security. Way back in the 1980s I had friends with sixty thousand dollars of college loans to pay off. They were anticipating two incomes and devoting one entirely to paying off their student debt. Now those numbers seem quaint. In that respect I have been very fortunate. My parents were able to pay for my education and while I had portions of my economic upkeep to cover, I had it very easy indeed. I never had to pay off a student loan because I never had one.

But it is not true in this economy to say that college degrees assure people will find work. Go ask the parents of thirty-somethings who have moved back into their homes about that. I have seen highly educated people lose one of two jobs and lose their home. In Tucson, I have seen engineers and PhDs lining up to take part-time secretarial jobs because so many companies (and schools) have hemorrhaged jobs. At the University and at some non-profit organizations here I have seen job advertisements that in a better economy would have been three full time jobs combined into one.

When new jobs are created that in the past were multiple jobs it sometimes happens that people who have the skill set for one portion of the job don’t have the skill set to do the other portion of the job. There were some jobs that I didn’t apply for because during the day they were 40 hour a week office jobs and nights and weekends they wanted you to be on the road visiting donors. If I was twenty or even thirty that might have been great. I don’t think I could survive a 70 hour a week job anymore.

Sometimes employers are not eager to hire an engineer to be a secretary because they know that if the engineer were offered an engineering job again they would be out of there in a heart-beat. Sometimes the organization or company has internal (or union) rules that require them to pay a higher salary to someone who has attained a higher level of education. This applies at some places even when the degree is not pertinent to the job being offered. Why would they hire a person with advanced degrees that weren’t necessary for the performance of the job and which would cost them more money? It isn’t a sound business decision.

A faculty member with a PhD from a prestigious east coast university suggests that we would have better prepared ourselves to face these economic challenges if we had also learned a trade – welding is the trade she recommends.

I have another friend who has gotten trapped in the net of Social Security Disability. Able to work part-time he has been burned time an again by the rules of Social Security. One year in December my friend miscalculated his hours, not realizing that the company he worked for put two days from November onto December’s paycheck. This resulted in approximately seven hours of pay over the allowed monthly income permissible by SSA Disability. This did not cause the Social Security Administration to reduce his payment by that amount. It caused the Social Security Administration to come after him for the entire year’s payments. A pro bono lawyer was finally able to get that stopped. Another time he was teaching an adjunct course at a small local college. As most colleges and universities do, they pay adjuncts in one lump sum at the conclusion of the course. The Social Security Administration had a law saying that it is illegal for employers to pay someone differently, for example on a different schedule, to accommodate SSA requirements. Surely, that was a law created to prohibit fraud. But in my friend’s case it had unintended consequences. Adjunct jobs are often paid in a lump sum at the conclusion of the course. I made $1500 one time for a ten week course, and $1100 one time for a ten week course. My friend similarly got paid some lump sum amount for teaching a semester-long course. This time the Social Security Administration removed him from disability. They didn’t go after past payments, they just said there would be no future payments. Their reasoning was stated: If you can make this much money this month, you can make this every month. A pro bono lawyer was able to get the payments provisionally reinstated until he reapplied for coverage and explained why their assumptions about the check were flawed. Finally after six months with the help of that lawyer he reapplied and his payments were officially reinstated. The SSA reasoning was flawed, thinking a payment for a project (in this case a semester college course) was the same as a monthly paycheck. Many adjuncts only get one of these jobs a semester. My two adjunct courses were in different years. These kinds of land mines in the rules of SSA disability are a disincentive as they punish you for trying to contribute to your upkeep. One of those political issues that ought to be fixed. Help shouldn’t become a trap.

My own situation is somewhat different. It has been five and a half years since I lost my full time job with insurance coverage and a pension fund. At first, I didn’t look for work. I had a part time craft business and I thought that when I lost my job it would be a wonderful time to try to turn that business into a full time venture. If I had continued selling modestly priced jewelry perhaps I would have been successful. Instead I put some inherited money into turning a room of my house into a studio. I bought equipment. I added a sink. I bought workbenches. My husband said that he would love to help me. So we worked together doing every aspect of the business. However some of the single items we made had 21-27 hours worth of labor in them – without the high cost of fine silver and gemstones. We couldn’t begin to charge what they cost us to make. Yet they were still too costly to make sufficient sales. We had many sales, from all across the country, but we were never able to re-coup the money I had put into the business. My tax man put it quaintly: “If you can make more money flipping burgers than running your own business it is time to close up shop.” New businesses always take time to establish; but unwise business decisions, just as the economy was going south, made this one unsustainable.

After that, I started looking for conventional work again. But like many other Americans I discovered that many of the jobs I applied for had hundreds of applicants. I brought in some money doing temporary jobs and supplying as a pianist or organist for churches. Then we sold the house that I had recently renovated with the studio and moved across country to my husband’s home town and got to begin job hunting again.

Here I was able to find some adjunct work. My husband has since returned to work but the nature of his job makes the work unsteady. So while I continue to find permanent work we live in genteel poverty.

Our past fiscal habits had put us in good stead. We have been able to operate on our own steam through these five plus years of under-employement. We were fortunate, even before either of us had work, our credit ratings were so high that we were able to qualify for a modest mortgage which meant that we were able to get out of our rental house and drop our monthly housing cost by over $400. We couldn’t buy a house for the amount of mortgage they were willing to loan to us, but we were able to cobble together some additional money from our savings which allowed us to purchase a house. In retrospect we are very thankful our mortgage is small. The house we bought was a tad smaller than we hoped for but the price was right. It had been neglected so before we could move in we had to paint the entire inside and do some minor repairs and replacements of lighting, plumbing and hardware fixtures. Unfortunatly this ate through much of our savings.

Some people might not readily guess that we have to count our pennies. But that is the fact about genteel poverty. We have some nice things. But many of them were purchased long ago or they were family pieces that were passed down from our parents. The clocks don’t run because we can’t afford taking them to be repaired. The 110 year old piano which was used to being tuned once or twice a year hasn’t been tuned in six years. Furniture needs to be reupholstered; our only sofa has torn cushions and two occasional chairs need padding so badly that you can feel the wood frame when you sit down. I am working on turning old, worn out jeans of my husband into a jean skirt for me, and am planning at some future time to purchase upholstery fabric and sew replacement covers for our torn sofa cushions. We both need shoes and we cut each other’s hair. Finally when I started getting headaches we splurged and got me new glasses….being paid in monthly installments over the next eleven months. We never miss a meal but sometimes our meals have fillers in them….rice or pasta, or the lovely protein a friend introduced us to: Quinoa. We have saved hundreds of dollars making our own laundry soap. A variety of things have just had to be put on hold. A recent monkeywrench thrown into this delicate balancing act was the friendly letter from our neighborhood Home Owners Association giving us six months to paint the exterior of our house or they will take legal action and paint it for us at which point we will get to pay for the painting of the house and their legal fees.

We have not had a vacation since 2009. Not one single night away from home. We used to be able to go out to dinner now and again. That really isn’t something we can do anymore. The last time we had a meal out was when our neighbor thanked us for watering their plants while they were away with a gift card to a local restaurant. It was lovely. We went for lunch and had enough on the gift card for a tip. On our wedding anniversary an old friend surprised us with a totally unexpected gift of money to celebrate with. We splurged and went out to Quiznos for a sub sandwich and then bought flowers in the form of a beautiful flowering shrub for our bare backyard. We got to go out to eat and we got a lasting gift. We have named the Texas Ranger shrub after our friend so we always remember who made that colorful addition to our back yard possible.

My daughter is in college out of town. Throughout her entire years of college I have never been able to send her money. Not even $20 to go have fun with. She has worked to raise money to buy her own plane ticket every time she has come home. At Christmas we didn’t have a dime to buy her a present. So I made her some earrings – left over supplies from our jewelry business. I hope and pray that we will be able to make the trip to see her graduate. There is no guarantee. She bought a ticket and came and stayed with us for two weeks this summer. We couldn’t afford to take her to do touristy things or to go out to eat. We found things at home to entertain ourselves with, completed some sewing projects refashioning unfortunate wardrobe leftovers, and had occasional visits with friends. A neighbor invited us over for brunch one morning to meet my daughter and to introduce us to hers. A lovely surprise. My daughter’s visit was simple – but very good.

My husband and I get calls and letters from charitable institutions whose mission we applaud and to whom we have given gifts in the past. We cannot help them now. It frustrates us, but frustration doesn’t make it possible. We have friends and family who are also hurting and our ability to help is non-existent except for prayers, friendship and solace. We have had to curtail some of our involvement with a local charitable group – because we can’t afford to pay for the gas to get to events.

I see many political policy decisions that have prolonged this hateful economy. Perhaps that will be a topic another day. Today I turn again to teachings from my childhood. As a child my father taught me the ten commandments. Two particularly come to mind when thinking about poverty and may provide some bit of armor for those who are really in a dire situation. The commandments are about regarding coveting and stealing. The following are quoted from: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1959.

You shall not steal.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) explained its meaning this way in his small catechism:

We should fear and love God, and so we should not rob our neighbor of his money or property, nor bring them into our possession by dishonest trade or by dealing in shoddy wares, but help him to improve and protect his income and property.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
Luther explained it this way:

We should fear and love God and so we should not seek by craftiness to gain possession of our neighbor’s inheritance or home, nor to obtain them under pretext of a legal right, but be of service and help to him so that he may keep what is his.

For those of you who are reading this who are not living in reduced circumstances, I would ask you a couple things:

  • don’t assume that poverty has just one look and isn’t around you
  •  don’t assume that unemployed or underemployed people are not trying to find work
  •  if you collect for a gift at work make it voluntary and don’t pressure anyone into a set amount–what is easy for you may be impossible for someone else without giving up food or gas or?
  • try not to be condescending when you interact with people who are struggling financially
  • don’t assume you know what such a person has or has not done to solve their financial woes

If you want to help here are a couple concrete things that you could do to help someone:

  • pray for them that they might find employment
  • offer jobs or job leads if you know of something or are able to hire someone
  • if you have skills in networking, resume construction or proofreading, inquire whether those services would be a help
  • if you own your own business: consider accepting barter for payment. My father was a lawyer who once accepted a table saw and a wood lathe as payment for his legal services
  • if you are asked to provide a reference and feel you can do that, please agree. Some of the people who have agreed to be references for me have stuck with me through years of multiple job searches
  • offer your friendship
  • offer a ride
  • invite someone over for a cup of coffee or a meal or dessert (that could be a wonderful respite)

If you are gainfully employed and money is not a problem, or not a serious problem:

  • don’t take it for granted
  • give thanks where it is due
  • live beneath your means so that a change of circumstance has less chance to derail you
  • support worthy charities and organizations (they are hurting more than ever)

For those of you who are struggling with poverty in some personal version of this situation, we have found these things to help and be true:

  • If often helps to talk to a friend as that may help calm you or present a fresh idea of where or how to find work
  • Cast worry away. Worry only adds another problem and is not helpful (see Matthew 6:33-34 and Luke 12:26-28)
  • Don’t neglect prayer. Time and again my husband and I have seen our prayers answered.
  • Every day when you wake up give thanks that you have the blessing of another day. Another day means new possibilities and opportunities.
  • Take time away from the task of job hunting to enjoy the sunshine, look at the night sky, take a walk, read a book.
  • Try to keep a sense of humor…after all, it is only money!
  • Remember that things can change very quickly. I was interrupted in the writing of this blog entry by a phone call inviting me for a job interview.

Sometimes famous quotes are a help:
• Winston Churchill had good advice: If you are going through hell keep going.
• Thomas A. Edison also had good advice: Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

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